By Patrick Blanchfield
Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics by Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski, Beacon Press, 2015.
On December 12, 2015, The New York Times’s Sunday Review included an opinion piece by a pair of researchers entitled “The Rise of Hate Search.” The authors – Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist, and Evan Soltas, a student at Princeton – reported a troubling finding: in the wake of the recent mass-shooting in San Bernardino, data-mining revealed an uptick of Internet users in California searching for phrases like “kill Muslims” and “I hate Muslims” on Google.” Soltas and Stephens-Davidowitz argue that this trend in “hate searches” correlates with an uptick in real-world incidents, and that “Islamophobia and thus anti-Muslim hate crimes are currently higher than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.” Moreover, they use hate search projections to predict that, “about one in every 10,000 Muslims will be the victim of a reported hate crime over the next year.”
The correlation Soltas and Stephens-Davidowitz observe appears real enough. Certainly, combating anti-Muslim violence is a clear moral imperative on its own terms. And yet, something about the overall argument is dubious. It’s not just the conceptual uniformity of “Islamophobia,” or of how reliably that sentiment can be inferred from search engine analytics. The issue is the status of “hate” itself as a thing that can be clearly inferred, unequivocally expressed, and easily quantified. An example Soltas and Stephens-Davidowitz offer highlights this problem: “There are about 1,600 searches for “I hate my boss” every month in the United States. In a survey of American workers, half of the respondents said that they had left a job because they hated their boss.”
Never mind the possibility that, in searching Google for “I hate my boss,” a person may just be looking for a self-help article on how to deal with a toxic workplace environment or a thread of “Office Space” memes or a support group in their area. The plain reality is that the “hate” someone feels for their workplace supervisor seems manifestly different from the valences of “hate” towards members of a minority religious group. The survey respondents who invoke “hate” for their employer do so to explain their quitting; whether Googling based on this “hatred” correlates with workplace violence is something the Times authors don’t address. Meanwhile, attributing a motivation of “hate” towards Muslims is clearly appropriate when someone leaves a pig’s head in a mosque in Philadelphia or throws rocks at a Muslim woman driving a car in Tampa. At the same time, commentators seem reticent to use the word “hate” when describing what fuels other events and trends – from the everyday humiliations experienced by many American Muslims to the pronouncements of leading politicians (not just Donald Trump!) who have spent months selling xenophobia in general and Islamophobia in particular. Our invocations of “hate,” though ubiquitous, are – at best – confused and confusing.
It is precisely into this bewildering landscape that Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski try to stage an intervention with their book, Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics (Beacon Press, 2015). First, Whitlock and Bronski seek to unpack and disentangle the contradictory valences and political purposes implicated by the invocations of “hate” in the contemporary American context. They also try to propose an alternative configuration of concepts to supplant it in the name of social justice. Their effort is as ambitious as it is uneven – an all-too-short 142 pages of history, theory, and cultural criticism that is by turns provocatively concise and reductively broad, brilliantly suggestive in its treatment of some specific examples and trends while frustratingly abstract and overly schematic in tackling others.
Both authors are veteran activists and accomplished writers and thinkers. Kay Whitlock began organizing on behalf of farmworker rights and against the Vietnam War in the ‘60s, and later became a prominent figure working against the criminalization (de facto and otherwise) of LGBTQ persons in the US. Her trenchant critique of hate crimes legislation, produced in 2000 as a working paper for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which tackled “the symbiotic relationship between hate violence and structural violence,” directly informs the first sections of Considering Hate, and remains worthwhile reading today. Michael Bronski has been an activist since the first beginnings of gay liberation in the ‘60s, has published prolifically, and is currently Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard.
Although both authors have a specific background in LGBTQ activism, Considering Hate has a broader scope. Indeed, Whitlock and Bronski seek to tackle and decompose the overdetermined catch-all of “hate,” dismantling and genealogizing what they term “the hate frame.” “Many in the United States are wedded to using hate to explain our personal interactions and political ideologies,” they write. “Society has created a ‘hate frame’ in order to explain violence, seek justice, and attempt to understand human goodness.” But hate is actually “an easy placeholder for a complex web of many other concepts.” Whitlock and Bronski set out unpack this complexity, and since the notion of “hate” is implicated in more than just violence involving gender and sexuality, Considering Hate gives extensive attention to dynamics that involve race, class, disability, religion, crime, and more.
Although the answers they can offer to it are only tentative, the ultimate question that drives Considering Hate is urgent: “What would it look like to disentangle hate from justice and replace the language of hate with that of goodness?” It certainly is relevant to people interested in social justice in any of a number of arenas, and on behalf of any number of groups. Meanwhile, even when vague, Whitlock and Bronski’s prose remains readable, and their citation of other authors – from Angela Davis to Hannah Arendt to Jean-Paul Sartre to Audre Lorde to James Baldwin to Susan Sontag to Toni Morrison to Paul Ricoeur – never feels like name-dropping for its own sake. There is little if any in the way of extended exegesis of any one figure’s thought (although Julia Kristeva, Simone Weil, and ultimately Slavoj Zizek do most of the book’s heavy lifting when it comes to the authors’ working understandings of violence and alterity). Instead, concepts associated with various thinkers are lucidly glossed and then promptly deployed in relation to real-world examples, with appropriate citations provided for those who might be interested to read more. In other words, Considering Hate represents an accessible book not only for academics interested in social movements and the idea of social conflict, but also for practicing activists and politically conscious persons in general.
The first sections of Considering Hate are far and away the best. The first chapter, “Dehumanization and Violence,” offers an unflinching take on the thicket of double-standards that mark contemporary political and legal invocations of “hate.” The overall argument is that most invocations of “hate,” in the courtroom and otherwise, serve an essentially crypto-hygienic function, isolating and containing spectacular acts of “hate” as problems that are ostensibly separable from the continuums of social attitudes and structural practices that actually facilitate them. “The sleight-of-hand of the hate frame is that it invites people to believe the problem of violence directed against marginalized groups exists anywhere else but in themselves,” write Whitlock and Bronski. “The appeal of the hate frame is that it reaffirms a clear distinction between people who do violence and those who do not.” Contra this distinction, the reality is much more messy – and ethically implicates everyone, not just “haters.” “Hate violence is society’s visible eruption of long-standing practices of injustice that are expressed in a multitude of ordinary ways. Like Poe’s purloined letter, they are hidden out of sight.” The modern examples buttressing their argument are persuasive: why, they ask, is the killing of Matthew Shepard understood to be a crime defined by “hate,” while sexual assaults of young women – which, in many horrific instances, are digitally captured and shared by perpetrators on social media – are not?
Working backward, Whitlock and Bronski propose an impressive, if schematic, genealogy for the peregrinations of hatred in American life. Much of this hinges on constructions of “monstrosity” in its fullest etymological sense – as something that society de-monstrates, showcasing as a revulsive abomination– and to historically attested taboos over purity, contagious defilement, moral hygiene, fears of deviance, and more. The overall narrative ranges from understanding the hate frame as a “protean” political mobilizer, from early settler colonial genocide to the era chattel slavery to the eugenics movement to segregation to the AIDS crisis to the War on Terror, and beyond. This synoptic perspective allows Whitlock and Bronski to draw upon well-cited research that provocatively suggests links between what might otherwise be seen as disparate historical phenomena (for example, the advent of turn-of-the-century Freak Shows alongside the development of asylums that sequestered the mentally ill from public view). Likewise, Whitlock and Bronski’s idea of “the interdependent nature of hate violence and broader systems of power” allows them to draw meaningful continuities between practices like lynching and the death penalty, and between institutions like the security state and the carceral one. The overall idea is that Americans only like to see themselves as being “hated” (exemplarily, in the contemporary moments, by terrorists who “hate us for our freedoms”) and as living in a world of monstrous persons driven and consumed by hate – but never as themselves motivated by or complicit in it. “Simply put, injustice and violence arise from a totality of conventional actions, beliefs, policies, and practices that degrade others, even when there is no conscious intention to do violence to an entire segment of the population,” write the authors. “It doesn’t take monsters to inflict terrible injury.”
This first chapter hits hard, especially in light of contemporary headlines. For example, grappling with the public discourse over rape, Whitlock and Bronski observe that, “In its common form the rape story becomes an idealized tale of public virtue and individualized evil…Rape is imagined as an unspeakable crime, an affront to decency, perpetrated by violent interlopers [but] the reality is that is an ordinary and integral part of everyday life.” It is hard not to perceive this logic as underwriting, say, Donald Trump grandstanding that “Somebody must be doing the raping!” of America’s women, and the inevitable appeal of his then laying that at the feet of Mexican immigrants. We are willing to get outraged over rape as a crime perpetrated by people whom we already malign; confronting the pervasiveness of rape in American society, the reality of “rape culture,” not so much. For its assessments of contemporary American cognitive blockages around the idea of “hate,” Considering Hate is worth reading for its first chapter alone.
The second chapter, “Hate in the Public Imagination,” offers a reading of popular culture, specifically films and television, and is likewise interesting, if schematic. The underlying proposition is that, in the American popular imaginary, “definitions of hate are never constant; they shift, focus, and refocus in relation to events.” Per the authors, this plays out in films that durably thematize tensions between individualism and community, between vigilantism and authority. In practical terms, this involves interrogating a century and a quarter’s worth of media, breaking down each decade by how various specimen genres and films frame questions of who deserves to be hated and by whom; who is understood to have a right to make recourse to violence, and upon whom; and how or whether violence can vindicate justice. This does produce some remarkable insights. For example, writing about films made during the Second World War, Whitlock and Bronski note: “The treacherous German Aryan was, on the surface, dangerously close to the idealized white, patriotic American Everyman. The difference that screenwriters seized upon to demonize German citizens was that they were too white, too similar to one another, and too patriotic in their willingness to blindly follow orders.” The answer to this is the now-clichéd image of a multiethnic squad of American GIs, embodying a muddled worldview wherein “individual bravery is only valued in a collective context, nationalism is a pathway to peace, diversity is valued to distinguish it from fascism, and justice and goodness are achieved—and demonstrated—through the violence of war.” Likewise, Whitlock and Bronski provide fascinating parallels by juxtaposing film genres with historical events to draw out surprising similarities: Blaxpoitation films like Shaft (1971) are compared to 1970s Bond films and Dirty Harry (1971) to reveal an overall preoccupation with similar themes of justice through extra-legal revenge and “celebratory violence.”
On the one hand, this is all deeply interesting. On the other hand, it can feel cursory: we go from Edison’s Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) to MASH (1970) to cable TV police procedurals to Dexter and Breaking Bad in less than thirty pages. The reader may well agree with Whitlock and Bronski that popular films and Production Codes have historically preferred to deal with two-dimensional representations of violence rather than ruminations on the structural conditions that produce it. But the broader problem (namely, how our appetite for narrative itself seems to include a preference for stories about individuals rather than structures) is only really interrogated at the level of truism.
The remainder of the book, while still lucid, does not offer as much as the first sections. The third chapter tries to move beyond understandings of “hate” that narrowly personalize to inter-personal accounts, relying pivotally on Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection (which is presented only briefly) and a reading of American history that emphasizes how “Violent attacks on people and institutions on the basis of actual or imagined cultural differences are so woven into the fabric of US history that they often appear logical and transitional — a sort of national hazing process; a ritual that leads to American tolerance and acceptance of diversity.” The theme, again, is that “the harsher reality of structural violence” is glossed over. The fourth tackles various modes of disavowing complicity in such structural violence – what the authors term “disengagement” – and the fifth tries to think through what a focus on “justice” and “goodness,” de-coupled from the hate frame, might resemble.
The problem is that midway through the book the lack of much in the way of a fleshed-out vocabulary about emotion and affect grows untenable. The sections that attempt to open up new conceptual space for thinking about alternatives to the hate frame suffer from this acutely. Relatively late in the book, Whitlock and Bronski write:
“What society calls hate is a set of responses to an interwoven set of historical, cultural, and physical stimuli and circumstances. With such myriad, confusing manifestations, hate has become a catchall word, easily manipulated for political ends. By pausing before labeling an action or emotion as hate, people may be able to create a space in which they can make clearer, more careful judgments about the collective and individual consequences of emotions, language, and actions emerging from animus.”
The idea of what “animus” is, however, is never fleshed out – and this is a problem since the term is invoked repeatedly as basically the primary substance from which hate is conjured. Brief forays into more psychologistic descriptions suffer accordingly, and with serious implications, since it appears that, to the authors, the transformation of animus towards monstrous and hated Others is both a paramount ethical task and a promise of hope. For example, on the subject of our “fascination with hate,” which involves an obsession with the monstrous Other that co-imbricates fear and enmity with arousal and pleasure, Whitlock and Bronski write the following (specifically building upon a reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein): “The double-sidedness of fear is revealing here. As thrilling as it is to be frightened (the monster is terrifying in the first part of the novel), it is more thrilling to be relieved of that fear when the monster becomes a person.” On a very basic level, I am not so sure this is the case. Oftentimes, the revelation of a monster’s “true” identity is precisely the point where many horror films lose their thrill and veer either into meaningless gore or sappy kitsch. But for Whitlock and Bronski, the contrary is not only unquestionably true, but also underlies a pivotal mechanism for arriving at goodness: “The distance between human and monster, between person and object, is frequently portrayed is located within ourselves. The potential for identification and commonality is always there.”
But – what if it isn’t? When it comes to prescribing new ways of pursing justice, Whitlock and Bronski fall back, first, on calling for reflection upon and resistance to the hate paradigm. Following that, they offer a series of exhortations and axioms. “A new understanding of common humanity must emerge.” “The challenge is to think very differently about the nature of justice itself; to imagine accountability beyond the confines of punishment… to create peaceful and sustainable communities without relying on an unjust and violent criminal legal system.” “A beginning might be in radically breaking from society’s preoccupation with evil and enemies. It would be necessary to replace this language with an expanded civic vocabulary of goodness.” “Responsibility must be separated from punishment.” There are some tantalizing examples given, but the brevity of their treatment proves ultimately disappointing. The final chapter, which champions the power of “disruptive intelligence” and “transformative imagination,” emphasizes understanding interdependence, rejecting supremacist pretentions, and, above all, “a radical and compassionate embrace of the Neighbor.” Although they qualify aspirations for “common humanity” to safeguard against falsely “colorblind” egalitarianism, a commitment to universality-talk and faith in the transformative power of sharing one’s experiences with the Neighbor remain resolute. It is one thing, as a “first step,” “to trust that whoever our neighbor is, he or she is not automatically a threat to us.” But what if the neighbor knows who you are, and you know who they are – and it is precisely because of that you hate each other and want each other dead? It is one thing to grossly turn away refugees, to spurn the starving, to answer the New Testament’s “knock at the door” with selfishness (apart from addressing the etiology of the rhetoric of evil, this parable from the Gospels is one of the only points at which Considering Hate deals with theology). But it is another thing entirely to know who your neighbor is, to know their struggles, their way of life, their challenges – and then to despise them all the more for all of it.
Whatever the problems with Soltas and Stephens-Davidowitz’s conceptual framework on “hate searches,” their research on Islamophobia does note the following: “We looked at searches in the 10 counties with the highest Muslim populations in the United States. On average, these counties are about 11 percent Muslim, compared with 0.9 percent of the United States as a whole. We estimate, in these 10 counties, that anti-Muslim search rates are about eight times higher than they are in the rest of the country.” The implications of this data – which flies in the face of the so-called “contact hypothesis” (that proximity to difference produces tolerance) are distressing to ponder, but it is here that the rubber hits the road, hard.
In fairness to them, Whitlock and Bronski do not promise answers to the questions they raise. Their language is of opening space for new configurations of thought, clearing ground for new possibilities – and, above all, of not “permitting those already in charge to determine the terms of debate.” And yet, immediately after writing this, they ask: “How can justice practice shift from a focus on vengeance to an emphasis on healing, reparation, and transformation of the conditions that produce violence?” The answer: “To imagine this possibility, those who do serious harm to others must hold themselves accountable for their actions and work to repair the harm they have caused.” To illustrate such self-accountability, Whitlock and Bronski offer the example of a convicted American murderer who, working with his victim’s family and prosecutors, will serve a modified sentence and has since devoted himself to advocacy. This is a moving true story, but it still takes place largely within a framework of state institutions that serve a function, however broken, of holding people to accountability, however flawed and imperfect the surrounding ideology may be. But what of those who not only prey upon their neighbors, but reject taking accountability for themselves, and are insulated by power and privilege from ever having it imposed on them? Is the animus felt towards such people by those they harm of the same toxic species as the animus (or indifference) that sustains their oppressors? This question does not really arise in Considering Hate, but it, like the question of the Neighbor who knows you and then decides you are disposable anyways, remains pressing all the same.
Patrick Blanchfield holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com.